1 · Stasiland
It may seem an anti-climax to end on a one-paragraph post, but I’ve already written enough about my number one book of 2004, and as I’ve read nothing else like it all year there’s not much else to add. Anna Funder’s Stasiland is the key to the cupboard under the stairs of twentieth century history.
2 · Spanish Steps
Regular readers will have seen this one coming, at least. Is Tim Moore the funniest travel writer around today? Funny enough for me, anyway. Choosing a favourite out of his books is hard: for a long while Frost on My Moustache looked like the front-runner, but I think it has to be his newest, Spanish Steps, for being the story of more than Moore alone. I guess it’s the fitting choice in a “best of 2004” list.
Speaking of Spain, if you’re heading that way I highly recommend the Time Out guide to Andalucía.
3 · Life of Pi
Judging by the end-of-year round-ups in newspapers, you’d think that to be well-read you not only have to read more books than any other person you know, they also have to be the very latest up-to-the-minute volumes of Encyclopedia Zeitgeistica. I manage a few timely reads every year, but between those and catching up on neglected classics and the older stuff that’s caught my eye, the zeitgeist backlog grows ever larger. Fortunately, the zeitgeist is a moving target, so if I neglect its Essential Books for long enough they’ll just become Old Stuff I Haven’t Read Yet, which is much less guilt-inducing. In fact, it can feel like time saved: I kept Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians around for years because it was a zeitgeisty book on politics which Every Australian Should Read, until it became clear that not only was I likely to disagree with it (not a problem as such), I’d be disagreeing with stale zeitgeist. So I’ve traded it in for a fresh new copy of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which should do for a quick sorbet of non-fiction between heavy courses of Stephenson (360 pages in, by the way, but I’m hoping to finish volume one over Christmas).
Fictional zeitgeist keeps a bit better than non-fiction, but there’s still that sense of wanting to keep up with what everyone’s reading, or at least what they’re pretending to read. In recent years I’ve found that the occasional Booker-winning or -short-listed novel does the trick; this year, I’ve actually read two, although I’m still a year or two behind the curve.
4 · White Gold
Giles Milton is another author well-covered here already. His books are all so excellent that it’s hard to choose the best; I particularly liked Big Chief Elizabeth. But my pick of the year has to go to his newest, for being a story I didn’t know the first thing about.
5 · The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading was a close contender for this top ten. A thoughtful reflection on various classics of children’s literature and how they affected Spufford’s development and adult outlook, it was enjoyable not only for the influences we had in common—Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin and science fiction in general—but for those we didn’t, like C.S. Lewis and The Little House on the Prairie. Reading it took me back to Huonville library and the thrill of exploring the books on its shelves, and to all those hours spent inculcating the reading habits of a lifetime.
Kids are spoilt for choice for good books at the moment, and it’s been fun to bob for the apples at the top of the barrel of popular awareness. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time made a lot of top tens in the newspapers last year, so when it came out in paperback I read it pretty much straight away. Its Asperger’s Syndrome narrator has one of the most striking voices of recent fiction—a more prickly and analytical Adrian Mole—and the book’s central mystery unfolds in the best detective story tradition. Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s a book that can be enjoyed by adults without having to make any allowances for its genre, provided you don’t give a toss about people looking down at you for reading children’s books—or for following the herd and reading the fashionable children’s books that have been noticed by the newspapers. How else are you supposed to hear about them? The Huonville library is a long way away.
6 · Not on the Label
It isn’t often you can say “This book changed my life,” but Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label did. Since reviewing it here in July, I’ve been to Tesco no more than half a dozen times: we’re getting a veg box delivered to our door by a local organic producer instead. So our diet has changed, at least: more cabbage, more carrots, more scrubbing away dirt; and I’m reading more new recipes than I had been for quite a while. The other night I even donned rubber gloves to peel and grate four fresh beetroots to make a garish red risotto. Try doing that with a jar of Baxter’s finest.
7 · Being a Man... in the Lousy Modern World
Another entry where I can coast for a bit. I’ve done the Robert Twigger round-up, and reckon all four of his books are worth your time. As for a favourite, I’ll go with the one I’d most like to re-read, even at this early stage: Being a Man... in the Lousy Modern World. (In a similar vein to some of Twigger’s work, and just as entertaining, was Nigel Barley’s Not a Hazardous Sport, although it’s out-of-print and hard to track down—took me years to find a copy.)
8 · Where Did It All Go Right?
Unless you’re some kind of celebrity or had a terrible childhood, good luck getting your autobiography published. Andrew Collins must have good luck, then, because Where Did It All Go Right? is the intentional opposite of the terrible-childhood memoir: a “blissful middle-England childhood” memoir. Granted, he might count as a minor celebrity—BBC radio presenter, ex-editor of Q—although I’d never heard of him. I’d heard of a surprising number of the things he grew up with, though: all those elements of UK pop culture that made their way out to the other side of the world, like The Goodies, IPC comics, and the New Romantics. It helped that Collins is only a couple of years older than me, but Jane grew up with none of that stuff and yet also enjoyed this.
9 · From Hell
While books about Australia dwell on questions of national identity, books about Britain, judging by the ones I’ve read this year, dwell on questions of class and Englishness.
10 · A Short History of Nearly Everything
Last year I wrote about a slew of non-fiction books on the great figures of the 19th century who Changed Everything, but there were a few gaps. I mentioned Simon Garfield’s Mauve, but only read it this year: a perfectly encapsulated story of a forgotten figure who invented much of the world we see around us. Then there was Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters, which brings to life the time when people couldn’t bring themselves the believe that anything bigger than a rhinoceros ever wandered around Britain. (It inspired those dinosaur limericks.)
But the best pop science book I’ve read this year has to be Bill Bryson’s guided tour of modern science, A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s a natural successor to his earlier books on the English language, and a lot wittier than most of the competition, if not always as accurate.
After reading Atonement I compulsively bought most of Ian McEwan’s books—and then left most of them on the shelves. (To mature, like a fine wine.) When I saw the trailer for the movie version of Enduring Love a couple of weeks ago, I realised I’d better pull my finger out if I was going to read the book first.
Moors and Moore
When I wrote about the complete works of Giles Milton and Tim Moore a few months ago, I hadn’t read their latest books yet. Now I have, and both of them easily match their previous work. They’re even vaguely connected.
Very Thick Books
Everybody—by which I mean everybody who spends too long online—seems to be a Neal Stephenson fan these days. I can’t claim priority: I tried him out only after Snow Crash topped a best-of poll on rec.books.sf in the ’90s. Even then it took me a couple of years to get around to reading what was, after all, a very thick book. I’d given up my very-thick-book habit in the mid-’80s after being burned by volumes two and three of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (the First Chronicles and The Wounded Land were great—how can you not like a fantasy series where the bad guy is called Lord Foul?—but by White Gold Wielder I reckoned the Land had become the Land of Suck). After that I found it more satisfying to read shorter works of 200-300 pages, which ruled out most fantasy and science fiction for a while.
When you get bitten by the travel viper, it’s only a matter of time before the usual heavily-touristed destinations no longer satisfy. And so, with the narcotic venom of adventure coursing through your veins, you look for more and more remote destinations to visit, in the belief that the grass is always greener on the other side of the world.
For Australians there’s no place more remote than Iceland, and no place more different than our well-worn landscape. Yet here in Britain you’re tantalisingly close to its volcanoes, glaciers and powder-blue thermal pools.
When Jane and I moved to the UK we both fancied visiting Iceland, perhaps en route to the eastern US sometime; we even bought the LP. But things haven’t turned out that way. We haven’t been over to Boston, nicked off to New York, or rocked into Reykjavik. It looked like we would last year, with a friend of Jane’s; then, when we realised the prices quoted were out by a factor of two, it looked like only Jane would; then, thanks to various other complications, we went to Australia instead. Which was all well and beaut, but Melbourne and Tassie have no lava.
We had to settle for seeing another friend’s photos from her trip at around the same time, and figuring that we’d do it properly one day—three weeks of driving on dodgy roads around the whole island. Or maybe never do it, and just chalk it up to unexperience, like the flight to Zurich that never happened.
So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up Tim Moore’s travelogue about Iceland and other northern climes, Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer. Would it be enjoyable, or would it just make me regret that we hadn’t got there?
The origin of my long-neglected plan to review the complete works of various authors I’ve been reading this year was my discovery of a specific writer, and subsequent compulsion to read everything he’d written: four books you’ll have trouble finding together in a library or bookstore, but which deserve to be considered collectively.
The History Man
The Complete Works Part II (at last)
Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg was one of my favourite reads last year, so when I found a copy of his earlier The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville I snatched it up and started reading immediately, despite not knowing who Sir John actually was.
Mandeville was, it turned out, a major figure of English literature almost completely written out of history by the Victorians, who knew better (they thought) about his fanciful claims of travelling to the Holy Land and the Far East in the fourteenth century. Mandeville’s account of his journey, known simply as The Travels, influenced readers from Columbus to Keats, and on discovering it himself Milton set out to determine how much of it was true.
The crowd on the old Mindini was rather different from the heterogeneous mob one meets on a brass-bound liner. Practically everyone knew everybody else, or at least had heard of them, because gossip and news in the Islands is as rampant—and as devastating—as in any English Cathedral town. There are only about 500 white people in the whole Solomon Island Group, and, as far as I am aware, there is only one gentleman of the Jewish faith amongst the lot. But then, of course, as is the case throughout the tropics, there are a lot of Scotsmen. Nicholson told me the mosquitoes were pretty bad, too.
Clifford W. Collinson, Life and Laughter 'midst the Cannibals, 1926.
The Complete Works
When I shifted to this 2004 format I told myself there’d be a few changes, and by now you’ve seen what they are: even more infrequent posting; essay-length entries interspersed with goofy one-offs; and an almost total lack of metabloggery and reviews. I hadn’t planned on ditching the reviewing, but my intake of movies and music has been fairly light this year, while my book consumption has outstripped opportunities to write about them. After getting back from two weeks of reading the Time Out guide to Andalucia and signs in Español, I read anything I could get my hands on, and have hardly stopped since.
Over the next week or so I’m going to revisit them here, grouped into four or five themes. Kind of a Times Literory Supplement. I’m not sure why; it seems mad to write about a bunch of books that regular readers of this site won’t have read, and random Google searchers won’t care what I think about, without getting paid to do it by Rupert Murdoch. But that never stopped me before.
The first theme, just to get them out of the way, is The Last Two Books I Read Just The Other Day.
End of Days
The latest book by Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is perfect reading for January; so big and heavy it’s best to be lying down to read it, preferably in bed. Once you start reading you’ll find it’s full of reasons never to get out again, like the fact that the Earth is overdue a cometary collision on the scale of the one that obliterated the dinosaurs with a force of a million billion zillion Hiroshima bombs (the standard ISO unit of interplanetary destruction), or that Yellowstone National Park is sitting on a lake of magma so gigantic that when it blows (which is also overdue) six Western US states will have to be renamed New Pompeii, and the rest of the world will be eating ash for a month.
Nothing you won’t already know from a regular subscription to The Watchtower, then, but there’s something about the way Bryson describes the cruel and unforgiving nature of the universe that makes the utter pointlessness of all human endeavour all the more obvious. Given that A Short History was a bestseller among people looking for heavy books to give relatives at Christmas, it’s only a matter of time before an outbreak of mass nihilism of a kind not seen since the Great, Like, Whatever of 1987.